Saturday, October 24, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 12

Galatians 5:12 “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!”

Paul’s sarcasm and wit combine with his passion and anger here. He uses similar wordplay as he did back in 5:7 -- the verb translated as “cut off” or “cut in” could be applied to cutting in front of a runner in a race, or surgical cutting in the practice of circumcision. Here, Paul is even more direct, but the wordplay still has double meaning. The Greek word used here could mean either “cut off” or “castrate.” Most of the more literal translations of the Bible (like the KJV) render this as “cut off,” implying that what Paul primarily means here is that he wishes the Judiazers would “cut off” their fellowship with the church. This is logical, in the overall context, but there is also a subtext here,and most other translations connect this verb with the concept of circumcision in this discussion, and translate it as “mutilate,” “emasculate,” or even “castrate.” Paul is certainly not being explicit or prurient, but his passionate approach and deep affection for the Galatians indicates that an insult like this is certainly not beneath him. He is far more passionate in his criticism of the Judiazers than in the blame of the Galatians themselves. Another interesting concept, however, is that while circumcision was required by Jewish law, and therefore common to every Jewish family, Roman society viewed the practice with horror and disdain. Years later, Emperor Hadrian would outlaw circumcision as a barbaric practice. But Paul’s insult here has a particularly Jewish irony. Many of the pagan cultures in and around Palestine in the Old Testament and even in Paul’s day included castration as a part of their religious or social rites (including the Greek cultures of the people of Galatia), and Jews had a traditional strong disdain for eunuchs (i.e. castrated males – see Deuteronomy 23:1). For a Jewish man to intimate that another Jewish man should be castrated would truly be a cultural insult -- and in the context of the underlying them of Paul's attack on racism/cultural identity in this letter, it seems appropriately ironic.

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